An Inconvenient Pine

The Captain finished tamping his pipe, lit it, and then tersely commented- “They’re just Summer Complaints.” My wife, her mother, and the Captains brother all nodded agreement. I kept quiet. Back in the old days, Summer Complaints were some of the nastier infectious diseases that came primarily in warmer weather. Now it was just a very derogatory comment for summer people “They’ll be gone Labor Day.” This last said between clenched jaws as he bit into his pipe stem. The Captain rarely showed any outward signs of upset or anger, and clenching his jaw indicated near rage.
The cause was rapidly retreating southwards along Center Road towards the Cape. The reason? An argument between the Captain and the Bensons about their pine tree. That pine obstructed the Cap’ns view down to the cove. This particular pine mostly blocked the view of Psyche, my father in laws 34-foot ketch, muse, and love of his life (next to his wife of course). Psyche swung insouciantly at her mooring drifting in and out of view.

Sunday dinner had a tension that neither female could defuse by attempting to distract the conversation into safer channels. I received a kick under the table, a signal that I should make some conversational foray to aid.
“So, when were you planning on fishing the masts? Tides up at seven, and Thompson’s should be clear for us.” Glare.
It was spring, and we had taken the ketch’s masts out for overhaul. They needed to be placed back into her. In local terms, we had to fish the masts. To do so, we brought the boat up to a small bridge. One of us below in the boat. The other is above handling the masts and easing them into the mast steps. See, it’s easier said than explained.

I heard no more about “that damn pine” until winter. The Cap’n seemed to have a little secret smile every time the weather turned foul, and the roads greasy with ice. He always had an eye on the cove. Psyche was never hauled in winter but swung at an ice-free mooring in a channel that the tides scoured clear of ice. Our main winter preps included things like heavy winter rub rail at the waterline, a heavy mooring cable, winterizing the engine, bringing in the sails and adding baggy wrinkle ( anti-chafing gear for the rigging). After that, the ketch swung at her mooring till spring. The Cap’n and I continuously craned our necks to see down to where the boat rode at mooring. By the end of the winter, I began to see why the Cap’n was so peeved by the tree.

Spring came, and the pine was still there. My father in law was fit to be tied. Once again, I was scraping, sanding, and painting. The ritual of mast fishing took place. It was my third year helping, and I had the trick to shifting the balance slowly as I tipped the masts over the bridge’s railing and into the tiny hole offered by the mast step.

One Sunday at supper it came out that he’d paid Harold the Town’s plow operator to liberally salt the pine down every storm. It had been a wet stormy winter, and lots of salt had been spread at the base of the pine. Enough salt had been spread that most of the low shrubbery around the pine appeared to be dead. But, it had been just as rainy as snowy, and the salt must have washed away because it was a genuine Yankee Down East no-nonsense white pine, and it seemed to be even healthier for the salt applications. Additional conversations with the Bensons proved fruitless. My wife and mother in law scotched an idiot scheme of mine to slowly girdle the tree. After a winter of neck-craning, I was on board with the desire to get rid of the pine.

Things got busy enough by summer that I’d stopped thinking about the pine. I had a summer job at a boatyard, research for my degree to do, and as crew onboard Psyche a maintenance schedule that had been three years in arrears when I had inherited it. By September the Captain was smiling again. But, in spring the tree was still there. At dinner one week the Captain admitted that he’d had Lowell, a neighbor in the cove, drive copper boat nails into the tree all spring and summer. The copper was supposed to be poisonous to the tree. Instead, it seemed to have bushed out and grown exceptionally well that summer.

That winter, my wife’s mother prevailed in the long quietly ongoing argument about “snowbirding” for January through March. Not long after Christmas the two snowbirds packed up and headed to the Florida Panhandle. Several locals stuck in Town watched the frost warning light set up in the dining room window, and craned necks to observe Psyche at her mooring. We came up once a month for retreats from the university where I was now in my senior year.
It was a great year to be in Florida, less so in Coastal Maine. The tourist bureaus like to downplay the amount of snow that the area gets, and the coast indeed sees a fraction of what accumulates in inland regions. But it’s not the snow that gets you on the coast. It’s the ice storms that turn the roads into a slick mess. The term you sometimes hear is that the roads turn “greasy.” Too true. So it was one greasy night about midnight that the plow truck slowly, ponderously, slid off the road and into the pine tree that blocked the view of Psyche.
When the edition of the regional newspaper – the Coastal Register- landed in the mailbox on the Florida Panhandle there was a celebration. The Captain was said to have even grabbed his wife and spun her around. The hated tree was gone. Thank God, too, Harold had survived unharmed.

In early April we hosted my in-laws at our house in the Boston area. We would all head north Friday evening to spend the weekend opening up the island home. Very late on Friday, we pulled into the driveway. A fire in the fireplace and tea made us all feel human again. Enough so that the dreaded Cribbage board made an appearance, and I was shanghaied into several games. As Indiana Jones hates snakes, so do I hate Cribbage. Grumble I might, but go I went.

The next morning was a real early coastal spring day; rain and lots of fog. It was not until almost midday that it cleared enough to see down into the cove. There stood the damned pine, cranked at an extreme angle it is true, but still blocking the view of the ketch. No one had had the fortitude to tell the Captain. When he noticed he almost seemed a defeated man. Almost.

The Captain’s sister was Lydia. She had once been married to a ship’s Captain, but he had died at sea, they never had children, and she had not remarried. So by some strange logic of the locality, she was referred to as a “Maiden Aunt.” That summer, I painted the fourth wall of Aunt Lydia’s house. Each year I painted one side with the cheapest white paint we could find. In the coastal environment, the small differences in the whites faded away, and by the time I’d finished all four walls, it was time to start again. And, that’s why I missed the slow decline of the pine, as it gradually lost needles, and died. By the beginning of August, the tree warden had come and cut it down. The Captain was victorious.

Just before labor day as I prepared to go to grad school, we spied the Bensons at the edge of their property. They were planting a tiny white pine where the old one had stood. When they saw us standing in a group watching they gayly waved at us smiled and pointed towards the pine.
As was his practice the Captain calmly reached for his pipe and tobacco pouch, then comfortably filled the pipe, tamped it down, slowly lit it and puffed it to get it going well. He looked in my direction, and simply said: ” should be a few years before we have to girdle it, Wes.”